I never thought I would ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever agree with anything that Martin van Beynen wrote. He’s to the right of Caligula and manages to enrage me on almost every topic he has ever expressed an opinion on, but his latest column shows an insight, wisdom and begrudging self-awareness that is touching, immediately forgiving and gracious.
In a recent interview Prime Minister Bill English was talking about his beliefs and opinions and said sometimes the debate shifted and you had to move along with it.
As the Kingswood Election Tour winds its way up the North Island – as I write we are on our tenth day of the road trip tuning in to regular folks – it strikes me that something has indeed shifted in New Zealand.
It has obviously been happening for quite a while but sometimes these subterranean societal shifts are hard to detect, especially by people like me who are being left behind.
As we approach the closely fought election in which the race is between somebody about my age and someone exactly 22 years younger than me, it’s become clearer that New Zealand is indeed ready to cross over into something new.
That’s why I think Jacinda Ardern is going to win the election or at least get more of the party vote than National.
And even if I am wrong about that, the ground has still shifted and what she represents is in the ascendant. If not this time, it will be the next.
I think Bill English knows that and probably realises that if he wins and doesn’t move with the spirit of the times, he will just do one term and then be history.
In some ways English and Ardern are very similar despite their ages and backgrounds.
Essentially both are practical intellectuals who genuinely care about achieving a better standard of living for all New Zealanders.
Unfortunately for English, John Key gifted him a poisoned chalice called “three in a row, time to go”.
But the problem for English goes much deeper and it boils down to being yesterday’s man.
Believe me I know all about this and have been fighting it for a long time. I have seen yesterday’s men and women a lot on this Kingswood tour and it’s easy to see myself in them.
Ardern does not represent the dawning of a new age because these shifts are incremental, complex and slow.
However, her great luck as a politician is the fact she has burst on the scene at a tipping point. The fact she is likeable, smart and has a bit of star quality also helps of course but it is the shift she represents that is important.
What she stands for is a different sort of New Zealand.
Under her, we can see the country becoming less male orientated, more diverse and tolerant (ironically she stands for less immigration), more open to changes like the legalisation of cannabis and euthanasia and less blaming of the poor and dysfunctional. Ardern stands for Māori language and redistributing money from the financially comfortable to the battlers and the losers.
She stands for a New Zealand that some will see as painfully politically correct and others will regard as less derogatory or patronising of people traditionally seen as different.
In other words, a country that is more Scandinavian than American or Australian.
The shift she represents is obviously generational. She gets student debt and the difficulty of buying a house.
She’s more sensitive to mental health problems and the issues youth face in finding their way. She’s prepared to make some economic sacrifices to do New Zealand’s bit for fighting climate change. On the divide between rural and urban she’s in the latter camp, where, fortunately for her, all the votes are.
English is probably also tuned in to these issues but that’s not the point. His brand has too much baggage from old New Zealand.
Regular folks reading this might think I have gone mad and that’s possible. The road does strange things to the head.
But the shift has been on the cards for a long time and although I’ve seen it coming I didn’t expect this election to crystallise the new mood so powerfully.
Perhaps the strongest historical parallel to the current situation is the rejection of Muldoonism in 1984 and the subsequent dismantling of the financial foundation of New Zealand society.
In some ways the consequences were disastrous but David Lange stood for a changing of the guard in the same way Ardern does.
People we talk to on this tour speak nostalgically of Helen Clark and see Ardern carrying on her legacy.
But Ardern is no throwback to the good old Clark days.
She represents something new and very much of the future. It could all end in tears but these shifts are unstoppable.
The latest poll, as I write, shows Labour about 10 points behind National. I suspect it is wrong and that Labour will do much better.
What would be tragic for Ardern is having to form a government with New Zealand First, the absolute embodiment of the old order.
In some ways I feel sorry for Bill English who has made a much better fist of moving with the times than many of his generation.
But when your face no longer fits not much can be done.
So I’m picking a Labour party vote victory and God only knows what will follow.
…what van Beynen has stumbled upon in his tour is a basic truth from the generational backlash of the 30 year neoliberal experiment.
‘Youth’ is no longer an age. It is a class.
New Zealanders younger than 45 were the first user pays generation. The cradle to the grave life subsidisation boomers had enjoyed from Government’s haunted by the First and Second World Wars were replaced by neoliberal acolytes who saw egalitarianism and equality as barriers to unfettered corporate wealth.
Those under 45 have been crucified by free market debt to try and gain the same level of agency boomers enjoyed. The price of citizenship for Millennials and Gen Xers was a user pays one and many have not been able to afford the entry fee.
Locked out of home ownership, locked out of social mobility through education, numerically locked out of democratic muscle, Millennials and Gen Xers have been ignored and relegated to impotence.
As the planet rapidly cooks due to climate change, the generational urgency, frustration and anger of living as half citizens in a country that once boasted its egalitarianism is like being forced to share Christmas Dinner with your bully.
Millennials and Gen Xers are now a class, economically disadvantaged and stunted by a malnutrition of the State.
The legacy of student debt, low wages, high food prices, decrepit public infrastructure, astronomical house prices and deeply flawed urban planning has reset entire generations into a shared class and in Jacinda they see someone who understands that reality.
The danger for Jacinda is that she is tapping deeply into people’s real lived class experiences and if they don’t see their quality of life and agency expand, they will turn bitter with rage.
There will be no putting this generational Genie back in any bottle.
“Let’s do this” is what Jacinda will cry out.
“Or else” will be the reply.